It’s been a whirlwind two weeks of travel. I may be physically back in Washington, DC. I may be making dinners and sitting at my desk, wandering around my yard, all full of Spring blooms, but in my heart, I am still in Paris.
I love that city. We had a great visit. Ate oysters frequently, but not often enough. Drank lovely wines. Watched pretty Parisians all dressed up and looking impossibly chic. Filled my eyes with architecture and art. With long views down the river from bridge to bridge.
Smelled the fresh baguette, the macarons at Ladurée, the crisp expensive air of Hermes’ new-ish Left Bank shop (in a former swimming pool!) Learned my favorite huilerie has closed, but found a shop around the corner that carries the stunningly good pistachio and pine nut oils.
The Charcutepalooza soirée, attended by a band of Paris bloggers, the generous sponsors and old and new friends, was a glorious occasion, and felt properly festive. It was a pleasure to meet Peter, and to see how he was as transformed by his Gascon experience, as I was. He blogged daily, and brilliantly, so read his posts! David Lebovitz wrote up a lovely piece about the party, too.
After all that celebrating, Kate and I chunneled to London for a quick stopover. We had brunch at Caravan – delicious thick slabs of sourdough with chunky avocado and red pepper flakes and fat poached eggs with yolks the colors of marigolds. Dessert was coconut cake, toasted, with lemony creamy custard and roasted rhubarb. My goodness, what a breakfast.
We walked the city – the weather was glorious – and met up with friends of Kate’s. We snacked again at Duck Soup in Soho – bits and bites that satisfied, then on through the throngs of Chinatown to St. John’s bar for Manhattans and more snack foods in their cool as a cucumber interior space, the bartender a little frantic and odd, but amusing. The other guests including someone who seemed to be doing a very bad impression of Russell Brand.
In the morning, we were off to Hogwarts, or so it seemed, as we boarded the train to the School of Artisan Food. What a fantastic setting for this new, bold educational experiment.
The Welbeck estate, all 17,000 acres of it, is situated in central England – north of London by just ninety quick minutes on the Retford train. Charlie, the local taxi driver, picked us up, and really I thought I was in the middle of an Agatha Christie novel, out in the Midlands.
But driving through the main gates pushed me out of Agatha Christie and right into Downton Abbey mode. Building after gorgeous building, long walls topped with stone pineapples, backing up greenhouses as far as the eye can see.
The school put me up at Mrs. Brown’s B&B, a quaint, picturesque, utterly perfect place just across the road. Joan is a delight and makes the most glorious breakfasts. My room was sumptuous with an enormous bathtub that demanded I take a minute to soak and relax. And I did.
The day I visited SAF, some students were in the butchery, breaking down ducks, making confit, pate, rillettes in strokes familiar to the Charcutepalooza community. Across the stone courtyard, in the bakery, elementary school students watched as Matthew, a young baker, demonstrated the magic of yeast and the roar of the wood burning brick bread ovens.
The children lined up to touch the warm bricks, returning to the line with enormous eyes and squeals. Each child would leave the school at the end of the day with a loaf of their own handmade, artisanal bread. Give a man a fish…
All this is possible with the artistry of a few and the vision of one. Alison Swan Parente is a remarkable woman who started out looking for a good loaf of bread. She lives in this little place, Welbeck Abbey. Yes, I know. It took my breath away, too. How does she do it? Remain so approachable and thoughtful and grounded?
Alison and I traveled together to London later that week. On the train, we talked about the state of culinary education, the history of artisanal apprenticeships, how knowledge passes from one generation to the next, and how desperate the need is to preserve these skills. It was an exciting and inspirational train ride.
I spent an afternoon in London wandering around Marylebone. The Ginger Pig is the perfect butcher shop. I picked up a small pork pie for the airplane – it was exceptional! I just wish I had packed some mustard. Next door, La Fromagerie made me yearn for my kitchen. I saw remarkable produce, a cheese room that looks like a fine jewelry shop, and jars of bouquets garni that signal real greatness at work.
And a few feet away on Dean Street, Ruth, a Charcutepalooza finalist and excellent dinner companion, suggested Quo Vadis. Splendid offerings including spectacular oysters, smoked eel and horseradish sandwich, salsify with parmesian and a fresh cheese, like loose fromage frais, with peas and mint. Perfection.
There is more. Much more. I’m still processing. In the meantime, I’m posting a few more photos over at Facebook, so check out my page there for the best of the bazillion pictures I snapped.
Stick around, I’m back in the kitchen already and have some zippy new preserves to share. More soon.